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A Little Perspective Goes a Long Way
By Steve Schueth

Some of us live for long weekends.  Some of us rarely take a weekend off.  But when we do, it’s a time to slow down, ignore the To-Do List, and catch up on some reading.  Occasionally it’s also an opportunity to view important questions from a new perspective.

Over the long Labor Day weekend, I was able to do just that.  I was pondering a question I have been asked by reporters several times in recent weeks about why sustainability as an investment concept has not (yet) gained wide-spread acceptance:  It makes so much sense, why hasn’t Wall Street embraced it as the “new normal?”

I have explained that we have made a lot of progress over the 20 years that I have focused on the green investing space, that we have learned a lot, and that we have also done a lot of teaching, as we have made the business case for sustainability.  I have pointed out that it was not very long ago that virtually no major corporation published a sustainability report, or had a senior manager who was responsible for environmental impact—both of which are now quite common.

In reading a brief summary of the “10 Things I’ve Learned from Leaders in Sustainability” by William McDonough, I was reminded of the wisdom that we have amassed from experience over the past two decades.  Here are a few of the most pertinent points summarized in McDonough’s piece (embellished just a little):

It’s all about design.  Design of things.  Design of systems.  There is no more elegant design than that of nature.  Design is about the whole, and good design is for the long term.  It’s difficult for human beings to get design right, as our very life spans are relatively short, and we have a tendency to seek immediate gratification.  We need to design things to both meet immediate needs as well as serve the greater good, over the longer term.  We are struggling to learn to do that.  Our very survival may depend on it.

The power of corporations is immense.  This power can be used for good, or ill.  When companies recognize the implications of the idea that it’s in their own best interests to keep their customers “alive and thriving,” everybody wins—both short term and long term.

McDonough says that “being less bad is not being more good.”  Aspiring to do a little less damage is no longer enough.  Incremental improvements are important, but almost certainly insufficient to the task of creating a truly sustainable world.

According to McDonough, many company executives “are hungry for a clear vision of the future other than the reduce-our-badness vision.”  I think he’s right.  Many executives are looking for the business case, and finding it.  Equally as important, many of the students in business school today are looking for a different kind of company, and an opportunity to have a positive impact on our world through business.

I am looking to invest in the companies that hire the best and brightest of this crop of MBA students.

Steve Schueth

Posted: September 10, 2010